Rebecca Roache in Aeon:
The year 2010 saw the death of Boa Senior, the last living speaker of Aka-Bo, a tribal language native to the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. News coverage of Boa Senior’s death noted that she had survived the 2004 tsunami – an event that was reportedly foreseen by tribe elders – along with the Japanese occupation of 1942 and the barbaric policies of British colonisers. The linguist Anvita Abbi, who knew Boa Senior for many years, said: ‘After the death of her parents, Boa was the last Bo speaker for 30 to 40 years. She was often very lonely and had to learn an Andamanese version of Hindi in order to communicate with people.’
Tales of language extinction are invariably tragic. But why, exactly? Aka-Bo, like many other extinct languages, did not make a difference to the lives of the vast majority of people. Yet the sense that we lose something valuable when languages die is familiar. Just as familiar, though, is the view that preserving minority languages is a waste of time and resources. I want to attempt to make sense of these conflicting attitudes.
The simplest definition of a minority language is one that is spoken by less than half of some country or region. This makes Mandarin – the world’s most widely spoken language – a minority language in many countries. Usually, when we talk of minority languages, we mean languages that are minority languages even in the country in which they are most widely spoken. That will be our focus here. We’re concerned especially with minority languages that are endangered, or that would be endangered were it not for active efforts to support them.